July 01, 2016

Improving Education Outcomes for Youth in Foster Care in Washington, DC: An Agency Approach

Emily Peeler

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Child welfare agencies across the country have long understood the importance of school stability and success for children in foster care. For decades, good child welfare practices have addressed educational needs as a part of quality casework and helping children and youth succeed. 

From emphasizing children’s well-being, in addition to safety and permanency, under the Adoption Safe Families Act in 1997, to including educational stability requirements in the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, federal child welfare law has increasingly emphasized actions child welfare agencies must take to promote educational success. 

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, which includes key protections to ensure school stability for children in care, child welfare agencies are well positioned to positively shape the education trajectories of children in foster care.

Washington DC’s Focus on Education

Nationwide, children in foster care are struggling to achieve school stability and success. National data reveals that of the over 400,000 children and youth in foster care fewer than 50% of those foster youth will finish high school by age 18. Additionally, 84% of 17-18 year old foster youth want to go to college. However, only 2-9% of former foster youth obtain a bachelor’s degree.1 

In the District of Columbia, children in foster care face similar struggles as foster youth across the nation. For example, testing completed in 2013 showed more than half of DC youth in care are not on grade level in reading and math. 

The DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the child welfare agency for the District of Columbia, has changed its vision and structure since new leadership arrived in 2012. This included creating the Office of Well Being (OWB) (currently renamed the Administration of Clinical, Educational, and Family Services (ACEFS)) and establishing the strategy agenda known as the Four Pillars. This strategy was designed to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families at every step in their involvement with District child welfare, and included one pillar focused on the well-being of children. Despite this emphasis on well-being, including education, there remained a need to more strongly align efforts throughout the agency to improve school stability and success.

In 2014, CFSA leadership sought out the ABA Center on Children and the Law and engaged its Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (Legal Center) project to provide structure and guidance to the CFSA education strategy. Using the “Blueprint for Change” framework created by the Legal Center, CFSA aligned existing education efforts with new opportunities to create a comprehensive framework and vision for education stability and success for children and youth in CFSA’s custody. (See sidebar for information on the Blueprint for Change)

Using the “Blueprint for Change” goals and benchmarks as a guide, CFSA leadership, with guidance from the ABA, engaged in a 12-month review of CFSA policies and practices. Staff from all parts of the agency and external education partners provided input and ideas to shape CFSA’s new vision. The result was the CFSA- specific Blueprint for Change, which identified the agency’s strengths in addressing education issues, uncovered gaps and areas for improvement, and recommended changes. CFSA leadership approved these recommendations in January 2015, and an action plan was created. The plan recommends action in six areas and includes 70 strategies and over 140 actions or activities designed to make a difference in the lives of children in care.  

CFSA’s Blueprint Strategy: Six Priorities

Revise Child Welfare Agency Policy

CFSA analyzed current agency policies and best practices from around the country to identify improvements. Updating CFSA policy and addressing new areas were priorities. These policies and revisions address school stability, special education, early childhood, truancy, reengaging school dropouts, school discipline, and older youth services. These new and improved CFSA policies became concrete tools that support practices and internal collaboration. Highlights include:

  • A comprehensive practice-focused education policy that incorporates all education-related policies throughout the agency in one place for easy reference. 

  • Complimentary business process standards to accompany the policy that detail where and when CFSA can intervene throughout a case to support educational needs.

  • Inclusion of current issues (i.e., DC school choice and lottery process; Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) foster care provisions). 

  • Clear roles and responsibilities of staff within CFSA, including actions they must take to ensure education is addressed appropriately.

  • Clarification of different types of education decisions and who can make them for youth in CFSA custody.  

To make these revisions the ACEFS staff worked with internal and external education partners, the Office of Policy Planning Program Support (OPPPS), and the executive policy team, to finalize and approve this new, comprehensive agency-wide policy, to be released in summer 2016. 

Provide Education-Focused Training 

Many individuals within CFSA need training to successfully address education needs of youth in care. To meet this need, CFSA provided a variety of trainings and resources: 

  • Pre-service and in-service trainings for staff: The ACEFS is working with CFSA’s Child Welfare Training Academy (CWTA) to create a pre-service and in-service education training module for social workers, resource parents, and school staff. The training will cover such topics as roles and responsibilities for monitoring and supporting youth’s education and school stability mandates. ACEFS also hosted “Back to School” brown bag lunches for social workers and family support workers to provide education-related practice tips and information at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. 

  • Education Resources Clearinghouse on CFSA’s website: The Education Support Team developed a web page as a one-stop shop for education resources. Resources on the page include referral forms, fact sheets on education programs and their eligibility criteria and practice tip sheets on education-related topics to guide social work practice. The tip sheets are distributed to social workers at events and trainings and placed online for reference.1  

  • Peer-to-Peer learning for foster parents: CFSA started requiring that foster parent trainings include a focus on education and has been developing tools to support them in their role (e.g., school attendance tool kit). 

Strengthen Practice 

Implementing the Education Blueprint required practices that aligned with the education priorities. To shift agency culture, the Education Support Team adopted practices to institutionalize educational considerations into case plans and meetings. Examples of new practices include: 

  • Assigning education specialists. The Education Support Team realigned staffing to assign an education specialist to each CFSA supervisory permanency unit. The education specialists have also begun attending all 30-day case review meetings to ensure educational issues are being identified and addressed. These 30-day review meetings are convened approximately one month after the child enters care and are where critical decisions about the child’s care and placement take place. Education specialists attend the meetings to help the team troubleshoot any education barriers and ensure school stability in the best interest of the youth is being considered. 

  • Putting information and data directly in the hands of social workers with a goal to improve education performance. For example, the ACEFS has obtained access to Individualized Education Programs3 (IEPs) from the school districts that have the highest enrollment of CFSA youth and are sharing those documents with supervisors and social workers on the child’s case. This ensures social workers have all necessary information to make education decisions and advocate for the youth in care. It also creates an opportunity to connect with the education specialists if questions or special education issues arise.

  • Creating practice tools to support efficient communication with schools. CFSA developed and piloted a Student Contact Sheet with Prince George’s County Public Schools, the county and school district in Maryland adjacent to the District of Columbia that enrolls a large population of CFSA youth. This Student Contact Sheet provides details schools need to enroll a youth, including the names and contact information for key people in the youth’s life. It also provides detail about the education support personnel within CFSA, so schools can reach out to education specialists when needed. 

  • Creating and implementing an achievement incentive plan for middle and high school youth. Youth identify a short-term education goal (i.e., improved attendance, increase grade or GPA) at the beginning of the school year or semester, follow through with that goal, and provide documentation of success to receive an incentive reward (i.e., gift cards). 

In addition to incorporating educational considerations into case plans and meetings, the ACEFS held various school-related events. These events were designed to encourage youth in foster care to perform their best and provide resources to the youth and caretakers. Some of these events included:

  • A youth recognition ceremony where rising ninth graders were exposed to older youths’ academic and vocational achievements to encourage success in high school. 

  • A “Mastering Middle School” program, which included information and tips for youth entering middle school and their resource parents. The focus of the meeting, held in August before school started, was to encourage successful transitions to middle school. 

  • A college prep event to prepare youth in grades 8-10 and in out-of-home placement for college. CFSA partnered with DC College Success Foundation, a local nonprofit that helps underserved students attend and succeed in college, to hold the event.

Coordinate Internally

ACEFS developed an agency-wide plan to share knowledge, resources, and supports with CFSA and private agency staff. This comprehensive plan included:

  • Increased capacity of the ACEFS. New staff was added to implement the Blueprint strategy and increase activities of the education specialists to support education needs agency-wide. This included helping rising eighth graders explore careers and close achievement gaps to prepare them to enter high school. 

  • Supporting success after foster care. CFSA’s Office of Youth Empowerment (OYE) works with older youth to prepare them for life success once they leave care. The Education Support Team has strengthened its relationship with OYE and both units are working to enhance the education focus of OYE to increase resources, informational events, and educational supports and interventions to help youth graduate high school and become college and career ready. 

Collaborate with External Education Partners

Since the Education Blueprint was adopted, CFSA has cultivated and improved relationships with key education partners, including the District of Columbia Public Schools, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, charter schools, courts, advocacy groups, and other community partners. CFSA has worked with external partners to host education events and trainings and provide new resources for students. Highlights include: 

  • MOAs with education agencies. CFSA has created Memorandum of Agreements (MOAs) with several local and state education agency partners to establish best practices for data sharing, school stability, available resources, and collaboration. 

  • Co-chair the superior court education subcommittee. CFSA is an integral part of the D.C. Superior Court’s Education Subcommittee, which includes local education agency representatives, parent attorneys, child attorneys, education attorneys, and judges. The court committee collaborates across systems to address the educational needs of children involved in dependency court in the District of Columbia. 

This year, the committee has focused on ways to ensure an education decision maker is identified for every child in foster care. It has developed a model court order for judges to assign an alternate education decision maker for youth who lack an adult to advocate for their rights. Not only will this court order ensure every child in foster care has an education decision maker, it will also bring education to the attention of the judge and court participants. The new court order will be accompanied by a user guide and targeted training for judges and other professionals.

  • Working with community nonprofits and organizations. Within the community CFSA is working with local nonprofits that provide resources to all youth, not just youth in CFSA custody. For example, CFSA has partnered with the DC College Success Foundation that reserves spots for students in care on college visit trips. Several youth have gone on overnight, multiple campus tours. These services help improve school outcomes for youth in care by getting them excited about higher education and providing them with the tools to apply and get accepted to college.

CFSA is also working with the local libraries to ensure young children in CFSA custody are connected to reading programs (and can access books) over the summer. These partnerships with local organizations also ensure youth are connected to key resources that will support their educational success after permanency is achieved and they leave the child welfare system. 

Improve Data Collection and Use

One great success of the CFSA Education Blueprint is increasing data access, collection, and use. CFSA has partnered with school districts and charter schools to access student data and relevant education information. With this increase in data, CFSA is applying data to make decisions that enhance case planning and access resources within the child welfare system. 

Steps CFSA has taken are: 

  • Accessing data from multiple sources—collecting information on: enrollment, grade levels, attendance, assessment scores, special education, GPAs, and credits earned toward graduation.

  • Sharing data with staff who need it—distributing education data (i.e., attendance, grades, and GPAs) and education information such as IEPs to social workers. In addition to providing social workers with this information, CFSA has given them tip sheets and support to improve youths’ school performance based on the information. 

  • Analyzing data to guide practice and target resources—identifying student performance baselines and using that data to target outreach and prioritize resource investments. For instance, gathering data on student assessment scores allows CFSA to identify students who need tutoring services. Analyzing enrollment and attendance data helps CFSA identify students who have dropped out of school or who are at risk of truancy. An education specialist then follows up with the social worker to talk through options to reengage the youth with their education or help brainstorm interventions to improve the student’s attendance.
  • Monitoring results of existing services and supports. For instance, data gathered this year from monitoring the CFSA contracted tutoring services revealed one-third of youth in care who attended tutoring increased their grade-level reading or math by one-half a grade level. Another one-third had at least one grade level increase in reading or math.

Impact of the CFSA Strategy 

The Education Blueprint has made education a priority within CFSA. As of early 2016, a little over a year into agency-wide implementation, extensive progress could already be seen. The largest impact has been: 

  • Data-driven decisions related to staffing and budgets.  The data that was collected has allowed leadership and the Education Support Team to identify gaps and needs and then make the case for more focused resources.  For example, the data enabled CFSA to make a successful bid to increase its tutoring budget and justify staffing increases to hire additional Education Specialists to support the work. 

  • Bridging silos within CFSA. Working on this education strategy has forged stronger relationships across the many entities within CFSA. Those stronger relationships will have an impact even beyond work around education.  

  • External partners valuing CFSA’s vision and role as a leader to improve education outcomes. CFSA is now seen as a resource on these issues, which has allowed CFSA to collaborate and develop new relationships in the DC community.  The CFSA Education Blueprint is reshaping practice not just within CFSA, but also for school staff, judges, attorneys, private agency social workers, and education advocates. 

  • Ability to track improved outcomes. As CFSA continues its work with schools, students in out-of-home placements will gain more support and see more improvement over time. For instance, CFSA has seen increased enrollment in services such has tutoring with improvements tracked for those receiving the service. With the new access CFSA has to education data from multiple sources, they can now track academic progress and the attendance rates and trends of youth in care. 

Challenges and Lessons Learned

CFSA faces unique challenges when working to improve education for children in care, these include:

  • Operating as both a local and state child welfare agency and the need to have clearly defined responsibilities of the various units and entities within the agency, including support for the contracted private agencies. 

  • Implementing an agency-wide strategy throughout a large city system, with a high number of charter schools and a large public school system under reform.  

  • Addressing cross jurisdictional issues and working closely with agencies outside DC. For example, approximately one quarter of CFSA’s school-aged youth in foster care attend school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, with another 20% attending other schools outside DC. This requires CFSA to work with other school systems and partners within Maryland and other jurisdictions. 

Implementing the CFSA Blueprint Strategy has also revealed some lessons that may benefit other jurisdictions:

  • Strong leadership and buy-in is needed at all levels and across agency divisions to make changes during strategy implementation.  

  • A project lead must be in place with the time and capacity to keep the strategy at the forefront of competing agency initiatives.

  • Data must be accessible and the agency must have expertise to use and analyze it to guide change and track and monitor progress. 

  • Time must be spent up front building a strong strategic document. It must be detailed and outline the strengths of the agency and areas needing reform. Having the guiding framework of the CFSA Blueprint is critical to align and keep efforts on track in a way that can be measured over time. 

  • Strong interagency relationships and communication (e.g., court committee) are needed to ensure the reform strategy is informed by, and getting out to, other partners. 

Next Steps and Vision for the Future

The ACEFS Education Support Team will continue leading the agency-wide strategy within CFSA to make policy and practice changes and collaborate with internal CFSA and external partners.

 Since passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, CFSA plans to work with the state and local education agencies to implement new practices required by the law. This includes revising best interest decision making and transportation plans. With CFSA’s education strategy already in place, these new efforts fit within existing activities and priorities now underway at CFSA. This positions CFSA to work on the required reforms within the existing infrastructure, and track and monitor progress in a meaningful way.  

Emily Peeler is a staff attorney at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. Emily, along with Kathleen McNaught from the Center on Children and the Law, has worked with CFSA to develop and implement this education strategy. 

Thank you to CFSA for reviewing of this article. 


1. See the CFSA Education Resources page for examples of these resources.

2. See National Working Group Data Sheet for more information: www.fostercareandeducation.org/DesktopModules/Bring2mind/DMX/Download.aspx?EntryId=1279&Command=Core_Download&method=inline&PortalId=0&TabId=124.

3. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is an individualized plan developed to ensure that a child with an identified disability receives the services and specialized instruction they are entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to promote success.

The Blueprint for Change 

The Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Children in Foster Care is a tool to guide education reforms for children in foster care. The Blueprint has 8 goals and 56 corresponding benchmarks that are used as a framework or checklist for direct case advocacy and system reform. Many jurisdictions use the Blueprint to implement new policies and practices to advance education outcomes for children and youth in foster care.

Blueprint Goals:

Goal 1 – Youth are entitled to remain in their same school if in their best interest. 

Goal 2 – Youth have seamless transitions between schools. 

Goal 3 – Young children enter school ready to learn. 

Goal 4 – Youth have the support to fully participate in school. 

Goal 5 – Youth have support to prevent school dropout, truancy, and disciplinary actions. 

Goal 6 – Youth are involved and empowered. 

Goal 7 – Youth have education advocates and decision makers. 

Goal 8 – Youth have support to enter and complete postsecondary education. 

Acronyms and Definitions 

ACEFS—Administration of Clinical, Education and Family Services: unit within CFSA’s Office of Well Being which provides supports and resources to CFSA children and families in the areas of mental health, education, substance abuse, domestic violence and community donations.

CFSA—Children and Family Services Agency: DC’s child welfare agency 

OYE—Office of Youth Empowerment: special unit within CFSA that works with older youth in CFSA custody. 

OPPPS—Office of Planning, Policy & Program Support: unit within CFSA that oversees the development and maintenance of policy. 

Education Specialists—designated staff within CFSA who focus on education supports and services for CFSA youth in custody. 

Education Support Team—a team of education specialists and staff within the ACEFS focused on education stability and success. 

Legal Center for Foster Care and Education—a project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, the Education Law Center, and the Juvenile Law Center, provides a voice at the national level, a clearinghouse of information, and training and technical assistance across the country for the education of children in foster care.